January 11, 1981. That was the day that I stood before the congregation at Christ Church in Exeter, New Hampshire, and said in a loud and clear voice that I wanted to be confirmed. I was the only one of my confirmation class to speak up, to make this a truly public statement before the Bishop, and God, that I was now putting my own stamp of approval on my baptism and affirming the desire to be marked as Christ’s own forever. I’d been to Sign of the Dove Retreat Center. I’d quizzed Rev. Gene Robinson on the meaning of “Begotten not made”, testing the priest to see if he’d try to B.S. his way out of the conversation. Instead, he leveled with me, and talked to me about faith, having faith that God existed, regardless of knowing “where God came from”. I was happy he’d really squared with me. And so, I felt ready now for my next step in my church life.
Well, kind of ready.
Shortly after my confirmation, my faith in God would be tested. A friend of our family was shot to death at the end of our street. Another friend who had cleaned our house and baby sat for me died in a car accident. And my Aunt Helen, my father’s only sibling, died of cancer of every part of her body, thanks to the neglect of her deadbeat husband. Suddenly, that whole idea of having faith in God went by the wayside. If God loved me, these things would never have happened. I felt like a fool for having bought a lie. I kept going to church and serving as an acolyte, but I refused to say any of the prayers during the service. Instead, I studied up on the burial rites. Death was more attractive than life.
The first “Godly” intervention occurred when I was a sophomore at Governor Dummer Academy. There had to be a reason why I was assigned to the school chaplain as an advisee. She wasn't my first choice as an advisor; I had wanted the English Department chairman. But, luck of the draw, I ended up with the chaplain. And a good thing, too! She was a woman determined to figure out who was this girl who avoided eye contact by pulling her long hair out from behind her ears and letting it hang in front of her face? What she discovered was that, behind the long hair, was a kid who was picked on by classmates, had a lack of faith in God, and a very strong pull toward death. The bullying was something she could watch for. The God-part was right up her alley, and she took on the challenge of trying to get me to see God as a force of good rather than evil in my life. The death-part was a little trickier. She had me agree to a contract: if I wanted to die, I needed to talk to her first.
January 6, 1984. The day I kept my word. My brain had finally arrived at the best means for me to make a final exit. The bell rang, and something kept me paralyzed. In all likelihood it was whatever life force that was still within that decided to shackle my ankles to the chair, and drop a weight in my lap. Puzzled, the chaplain inquired why I wasn’t on my way to my next class.
“Talk me out of suicide.”
That’s all I could say. At some point, I looked up at her and couldn’t discern if her eyes showed concern or fear. Today, I can’t remember the specifics of what she said to me, only that it was centered on God and working me through the thickest, darkest forest of my brain toward some kind of a clearing where light could enter.
And it bought her the time to make a phone call to my parents to let them know I needed more help than what a religion instructor at a prep school could offer.
I was diagnosed with neuro-chemical depression; thus began my two years of taking anti-depressants that made me tired and sometimes a little spacey. But I wasn’t depressed, and they kept me alive!
The chaplain kept working on the part that she could handle: God. I took her word that Jesus didn’t mean to do me harm. I was more interested in other things in the church besides which readings I wanted at my funeral. Eventually, I came around to saying the prayers during the services. And I believed that God wasn’t all that bad.
When I went to college, I continued going to church. It was for the social element since I was going to school half-way across the country where I knew no one. It was acceptable, as a Mizzou student, to worship on Sundays because lots of students did it. Buses would come by the dorms and take undergrads off to great, big, evangelical, fundamentalist, smack-a-queer-for-Christ churches.
There was only one Episcopal parish, Calvary, in Columbia. But there were probably a half-dozen Assemblies of God, rivaled only in number by the Baptists. The Navigators were big on campus. So were the Maranathas. In fact, it was an exchange with a Maranatha, in which we argued over whether God wrote the Bible that led to a really creepy moment in my dorm.
I’d gone out of curiosity to one of the many “Repent or Burn” lectures the Maranathas liked to put on, and had left in disgust when the preacher read from 1 Corinthians the infamous verses about “Do not be deceived: neither this person, nor that person….will inherit the kingdom of God.” The preacher specifically named “Homosexuals”, so I took off. One of the “faithful” followed me and we had a verbal spat over whether homosexuals were banned from the kingdom. The fight ended with her telling me that “God wrote the Bible” and me laughing out loud and going home. I shared with my dorm mates what had happened, and some of these women cornered me.
“God did write the Bible!” they insisted. “Are you not born again?” (Oh, brother!)
If they could have they probably would have taken me to the showers and baptized me! Calvary Episcopal never looked so sane!
But even at Calvary, life was not perfect. There were two associate rectors, one of them a woman. And there were people who refused to take communion from her. Then there was the lawyer on the softball team who was so pleased with himself because he’d successfully kept a Hospice House for AIDS patients out of a neighborhood. Suddenly, Christ Church in Exeter never looked so sane!
Tallahassee: I moved here in August 1990. Again, living somewhere where I knew no one, I turned to the church for a social network. Trouble was finding a church where I fit in. I didn’t want to be at the University chapel. I was turned off by all the talk of “families” at Holy Comforter. Church of the Advent was OK, until I realized that the attitude was “Men have their place, and women have a different place”. And it didn’t help that during the First Gulf War, Advent prayed only for the American troops. Depressed about it all, I ended up at St. John’s because it was downtown, and it was my last hope of finding a church home.
There was a woman serving as an associate. The choir sounded great. There were bells. They used incense. What was there not to love about this place?
I fell in love. And going to church wasn’t compatible, nor did it seem acceptable in my lesbian community. So I stopped going. I would return for holidays, but something strange happened. I think it was Easter when the priest giving the sermon focused on internal politics of the Church instead of the resurrection of Christ. It was really weird. A friend who sang in the choir at the time told me that things were getting a little strange at St. John’s. So, I stayed away.
But staying away from the church didn’t work for me. The years I spent in separation from the Episcopal liturgy were definitely dark years. At the times when I could have most used the solace of a sanctuary in communion with others, I instead tried to go it alone. I had no choice in a city where the Episcopal Churches gave off a feeling of coldness toward "my kind". But, unlike as a youngster, this time I did believe God was a friend and not a foe. I just wondered why the church had become so hostile toward me.
Today: I am back in the pews of St. John’s. Perhaps time, or maturity, or mentoring from a priest, or all of the above, have brought me to a greater understanding of God. Maybe I’m just hearing things differently now. Or maybe I’m finally appreciating that to live into the light brings me a better attitude, and feels better than stumbling over roots and rocks in the darkness. There’s still plenty of “noise” in the world that calls on me to cross over to “the dark side”. As long as I keep my focus where it needs to be (with the help of hymns and questions popping in my head and Rubik’s cubes) I should be better than OK. Confirmed, finally.